Barriers to communicability, linguistic microdiversity, macrodiversity, semantic fields

© Article translated from the book “Negoziazione interculturale, comunicazione oltre le barriere culturali” (Intercultural Negotiation: Communication Beyond Cultural Barriers) copyright Dr. Daniele Trevisani Intercultural Negotiation Training and Coaching, published with the author’s permission. The Book’s rights are on sale and are available for any Publisher wishing to consider it for publication in English and other languages except for Italian and Arab whose rights are already sold and published. If you are interested in publishing the book in English, or any other language, or seek Intercultural Negotiation Training, Coaching, Mentoring and Consulting, please feel free to contact the author from the webstite www.danieletrevisani.com 

Some Linguistic Problems

In the previous paragraph, we began to mention the problem of the different conception of the world produced by cultural diversity. But the problems don’t stop there. In fact, in intercultural communication we find a further barrier, generally much more evident: a different language, a different language, an uncommon communication code, unknown sub-codes (dialects, professional languages).

It is enough to hear two astronomers or two physicists talking to each other, while dealing with their work problem, to feel completely alien after a few seconds, unable to mentally connect with what they are saying. Also in this case we must consider an important phenomenon: linguistic diversity can be evident (macrodiversity: eg, Chinese vs. Arabic), but also very subtle and difficult to recognize, creating situations of linguistic micro-diversity.

There are different professional languages ​​within the same language, and different meanings applied to the same words. The problem of communication is not limited to the translation between different languages, but also touches the flow of words that exist between father and son, who grew up in two different generations, with different models and languages, or between managers of different sectors, whose problems and languages ​​become separate worlds. Translating means carrying meanings into other languages, but also, and above all, allowing access to a different system of thought.

Let’s see the following case:

• for US Americans, “tomorrow” (in Italian) means from midnight to midnight;

• in Mexico, “mañana” (always “tomorrow” in Italian) means “in the future”, it has a general postponement sense, and absolutely does not include a precise time frame.

The two different conceptions are not purely linguistic, but refer to a different perception of time. A seemingly trivial act, such as writing a date, can cause misunderstandings and problems, e.g .: 05.02.2010 means February 5, 2010 in many European countries that adopt the day / month / year date format, but it means April 5, 2010 in the USA and in other systems that conventionally adopt the month / day / year format. When two generations or two religions dialogue with each other, the problem of cultural interpretation arises seriously. This problem also arises in the dialogue between two companies, regardless of the language used.

One of the most naïve mistakes of those who face the intercultural dimension is the presumption that it is possible to translate the meanings exactly, transposing verbs and words “as they are” and simply bringing them into the language of others. Translation is actually a much more complex phenomenon. Each word, each verb, has specific “semantic fields” (fields of meaning) that cannot be translated exactly into the language of others. In some cases, there are no translation possibilities – in many cases, words and verbs have no exact correspondence in each other’s cultures and languages. Let’s see an example. An Italian company is preparing to start a production activity in China. He is looking for on-site consultancy to train managers on the issues of quality-oriented leadership, commitment to corporate values ​​(commitment), good internal communication.

It is therefore looking for trainers in communication. But how will you describe your need when the category of “trainers in communication” is not linguistically consolidated in the Chinese language? And are we sure that – if there is a similar term – the mental image that in Italy corresponds to the “trainer” is the same in the mind of the Chinese recipient? Thinking that the mental images between two subjects can match perfectly is a pure illusion. There are also intercultural problems when it comes to communication between the sexes.

If we only reflect on how much diversity exists between a Latin man and a woman on the concept of “having a relationship”, or “making love”, and other similar concepts, we can understand that the intercultural dimension is present in every moment of the day. But let’s go back to our Italian-Chinese dimension. What form of communication are we talking about? In Chinese there are at least two terms (ideograms) to describe “communication”, and at least three words that can vaguely approach the meaning of the term “trainer”. Are we sure we can translate correctly or that the translator does it? Let’s see some of these meanings in the following comparative table.

TermsIdeogramsPing YinMeanings
Communication沟通gou tongunderstand each other well between the parties
Communication传播chuan bomake yourself understood and spread your ideas
Trainer训练员xun lian yuanwho helps to do exercises
Coach培训pei xuna growth guide that takes care of both aspects of skill and motivation
Coach-Mentor导师dao shispiritual guide – who lights the way – who assists you in your growth (ex: study mentor, religious guide, teacher)

Even very similar languages ​​(Italian and Spanish) can give rise to translation problems, sometimes due to the similarity of the sound or the word. The word “embarrassed” in Italian has a meaning (roughly, to be uncomfortable), while in Spanish the word “embarazada” means to be pregnant. The same similarity in the root of the word generates problems in the American speaker who relates to a Spanish speaker by saying “I am embarrassed” (I am embarrassed), which can be decoded as “I am pregnant”.

The intercultural problem does not start only from the kilometer distance, but can occur within a few meters. Each dialect is full of words that cannot be translated into the official language. For example, the Ferrara dialect – like any dialect – uses terms that cannot be translated literally into the Italian language:

Tab. 2 – Some correspondences and problems of exact untranslatability from dialect (Ferrara) to Italian

TermsRough explanationTranslations into English possibleProblems of semantics
CioccapiattSomeone who “locks the plates”, who makes plates bang
The cioccapiatt highlights the person who makes a lot of noise but does not produce concreteness, someone who talks a lot but does not, but also someone who claims to have done or to do, but then will not.
Talker, braggartChiacchierone does not contain the semantic dimension of stealth, of boasting, which “cioccapiatt” instead possesses
Millantatore is very negatively connoted in Italian, but the “cioccapiatt” in Ferrara is only vaguely offensive, it is often a joking term.
PuffarolSomeone who “makes puffs”. Puffs are scams, escapes, broken promisesScammer, “crook”The puffarol makes scams, yes, but not graphs, it can do at most little damage
TrabascanShady person, someone who has “shady turns”Crook, shadyThe Trabascan is much more negative than the Puffarol, it can also be criminal, while the Puffarol generally does not do serious damage, but is limited to “throwing bins”

Exercises on untranslatability Exercise: search for words within their own dialects (if known), which may be difficult to translate into the Italian language. Evaluate the problems and difficulties of a precise translation, using the example of the table above. Exercise: search for words within your own language that may be difficult to translate into another known language. Evaluate the problems and difficulties of a precise linguistic translation, and the alternatives to effectively transfer the meaning. Exercise: researching technical terms within your profession, selecting above all the terms that should be explained to new customers, and the terms that we cannot take for granted or simplistically translate into a different language. Above all, select the terms that require the client’s “acculturation”.

Intercultural Negotiation Arab Edition

© Article translated from the book “Negoziazione interculturale, comunicazione oltre le barriere culturali” (Intercultural Negotiation: Communication Beyond Cultural Barriers) copyright Dr. Daniele Trevisani Intercultural Negotiation Training and Coaching, published with the author’s permission. The Book’s rights are on sale and are available for any Publisher wishing to consider it for publication in English and other languages except for Italian and Arab whose rights are already sold and published. If you are interested in publishing the book in English, or any other language, or seek Intercultural Negotiation Training, Coaching, Mentoring and Consulting, please feel free to contact the author from the webstite www.danieletrevisani.com 

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One thought on “Barriers to communicability, linguistic microdiversity, macrodiversity, semantic fields

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